Death is part of life

By the time most children turn four, they are comfortable with the idea of today, yesterday, and tomorrow and begin to understand the larger dimension of time. Their keen attention to similarities and differences has sharpened their interest in grown-ups and change. They enjoy comparing themselves favorably to babies and toddlers and wish to be able to do what adults can.

This convergence of developmental advances brings them up against some complex and difficult ideas, like growth, aging, and death, and they wonder and worry about these things.
Many children have also experienced actual events by this age, like the illness or death of a grandparent, with its attendant worries for parents or the death of a pet. They may also have been exposed to media stories about disasters, wars, killings, the death of famous people, and more. Although less frequent in Western countries, many children by four have gone through the death of a sibling or parent.

Death is an inevitable part of life, and there are many philosophical and religious ideas that attempt to make sense of this reality and encompass the related anxieties. Most grown-ups carry inside many of the fears and confusions about death that four-year-olds say out loud. “Will it really happen to me? Is it a punishment for being bad? What can I do so I won’t die? Can my wishes and feelings kill? If so, how can I protect the people I love from my killing wishes? Can other people’s wishes kill me? How can I avoid that? If I’m sad, will it ever end?”

Starting with the nature walks and gardening that are part of everyone's lives, and of each toddler and early preschool classroom’s curriculum, parents and teachers can talk about death as a natural part of the life cycle. This is continued in the four-year-old year with the addition of the idea of a “full life.” Each plant and animal usually has a full life—when we see a brown leaf on the ground in the autumn, we can talk about how it was first a little curled-up bud on the tree, then a tiny leaf, then grew larger and used the sunlight to feed the whole tree, then turned yellow and brown, then dried and fell to the ground, there to dissolve and become part of the soil. The leaf has been through its whole, full life.

Teachers and parents can talk about pets, how they each have a different full life. This usually leads to children telling stories of their pets; they have sad and loving memories of the pets that have died. Josie looked at a photo of her hamster and laughed as she told how he used to wake them all up at night, making squeaks on his exercise wheel. Her parents talked about the hamster’s full and enjoyable life and about how long most people’s full lives are.

Grownups can detail how children go through preschool and kindergarten, first grade, second grade, etc., middle school, high school, college, then work, and so forth. When teachers and parents spell out all the stages and ages, children concretely get the idea of a very long time, which they find reassuring. In our book EMOTIONAL MUSCLE: STRONG PARENTS, STRONG CHILDREN we discuss this issue in more detail, describing many ways to provide honest reassurance to children.

When children see grownups who are sad about a loved one’s final illness or a recent loss, they may worry that their mom or dad’s feelings will never lift. We can reassure them by explaining that sadness is about love – we only miss people we love. Remembering may be sad, but it reminds us of love and all the good memories.

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One Response to Death is part of life

  1. Berry says:

    I want to say thank you a whole lot for the work you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same top job from you later on also.

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